Did You Notice? … Not a single Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race in 2020 will start earlier than 2 p.m. ET? The idea of a 1 p.m. ET start appears to have gone the way of the dodo bird. The last race originally scheduled for that early in the day was a playoff race at Martinsville Speedway back in October 2017.
The theory of late afternoon races appears to be sticking over the long-term. This transition has happened quickly; as recently as 2016, one-third of the races were scheduled for a green flag before 2:00. Major stakeholders believe a shift in timing will help build back television viewership.
On the surface, you could argue later times have helped push ratings up. 11 of the first 28 Cup races have posted an increase in viewership this season; barring a late collapse, audience levels will match last year. Five years into the TV contract and two years into these changes, fans know when and where these races are on.
The question is whether late start times are affecting attendance. It’s hard to gauge the numbers because NASCAR no longer publicizes official attendance figures after races. But NASCAR’s track arm, International Speedway Corporation, reported a 5% decline in admissions revenue through the second quarter of 2019. The decline, in part, was due to “lower attendance for certain NASCAR and other events held during the quarter.”
That trend was matched by Speedway Motorsports, Inc., the company whose tracks comprise a third of NASCAR’s 36-race Cup schedule. They have admissions revenue down 7.4% through the second quarter, a decline they blame on “lower event-related revenues from reduced attendance and poor weather.”
Add it all up and those totals give us a fact-based decline for all but four races on the Cup schedule to date: Pocono Raceway (twice), Dover International Speedway and Indianapolis Motor Speedway. That’s enough to draw a reasonable conclusion that while TV ratings are stable, at-track attendance is still down slightly.
Would moving the races back to 1 p.m. ET make a difference? That’s the million(s) dollar question. Attendance has been a struggle for all sports across the board the past few years. Major League Baseball totals are down for four straight years now. Last season, the NFL saw its lowest in-person attendance since 2011. It’s clear a variety of other entertainment options are making the sports landscape more competitive; getting fans to commit to seeing games (or races) live is a constant battle.
The question is whether a start time of one or two hours earlier would turn the tide. As a fan, would you be more likely to go to a race if it had a 1 p.m. start time instead of 2 or 3 p.m.? We’d be interested in hearing from you how much it all matters. How many fans are showing up at which tracks takes on an even bigger level of importance next year considering NASCAR’s seismic schedule shift likely to occur in 2021.
Did You Notice? … Christopher Bell is stepping into a playoff-caliber Cup team in 2020? Leavine Family Racing missed out on the playoffs this season with Matt DiBenedetto but their performance since midsummer has jumped considerably. In the last 11 races, DiBenedetto has finished no lower than 21st, posting a playoff-like average finish of 12.3 with the No. 95 team.
Bell also is likely to have additional chassis, engine and financial support from Joe Gibbs Racing. It’s in their best interest to give a top prospect the best chance to succeed before he’s “promoted” into a JGR ride come 2020 or 2021. A similar trajectory was given to Erik Jones in 2017 with great success; he was 19th in points with a second team at Furniture Row Racing and won Rookie of the Year with ease.
But even Jones didn’t have the track record Bell brings into the Cup level. He has 19 wins in NASCAR’s Xfinity and Gander Outdoors Truck series the past three seasons. The 2017 Truck Series champion could add Xfinity to his resume in two months. (He currently leads the postseason standings). And, unlike Jones, Bell steps into a team already established instead of an expansion group created just for him. Crew chief Jason Ratcliff (remember his chemistry with Matt Kenseth?) also comes along and has the Cup experience to ease the transition.
These factors should raise expectations for Bell entering 2020. Since NASCAR’s new playoff format was created in 2014, only once (2016) have rookies made the field (Chase Elliott, Chris Buescher). Buescher is the lone driver to make the postseason and win a race on top of it.
I’d expect Bell to join that group in 2020. Winning a race should be a matter of when, not if.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off….
- It feels like Erik Jones’ disqualification hasn’t been given the weight it should. Could you imagine if a playoff team in a stick-and-ball sport was found cheating during a playoff game? JGR’s decision not to appeal is, in itself, an admission of guilt. One might argue the No. 20 team was pushing the limits, going rogue since it was on the outside looking in on the Round of 12 entering last weekend’s race at Richmond Raceway. But this organization also houses arguably the top three title contenders in Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. Anytime a level of “cheating” hits that close, it raises a level of suspicion you don’t want.
- A lot was and should be made of Ryan Newman’s top-five finish at Richmond Raceway. He’s currently 14 points above the Round of 12 cutline over Alex Bowman heading to Charlotte Motor Speedway’s ROVAL. But a look at his road course record is pretty ugly: no wins and just three top-five finishes in 37 career Cup starts. Newman hasn’t led a lap at a road course since 2010. At least he has a seventh-place finish from Sonoma Raceway to hang his hat on from this year (and an 11th at the ROVAL from 2018) but let’s not start celebrating this Cinderella story just yet.